Imagine a country where 30,000 people die unnecessarily each year due to violence. Then, add 200,000 more to the total people who have died so far during the COVID-19 pandemic. These numbers are incredibly depressing without even mentioning the many unaccounted victims of murders and femicides that remain hidden in plots and mass graves.
This is Mexico’s current situation, a reality where death is waiting just around the corner.
Despite seeing death and murders reported daily, Mexicans, who work the longest hours in the world, get up every morning and make jokes about death with each other as though nothing concerning was happening around them. From an outsider’s perspective, this might appear as carelessness, or ignorance even when our peculiar relationship with death is clearly depicted in traditions like Day of the Dead. Yet, this relationship with death goes far back and sometimes involves humor as a coping mechanism.
Since Pre-Hispanic times several indigenous communities held elaborate ceremonies and customs for the dead. For example, Zapotec tribes buried their family members on the same land where they built their homes, starting with tombs as their bottom rooms. These tombs were colorful places with paintings depicting deities and glyphs.
In the city of Teotihuacan, the Aztecs placed beautiful onyx masks as a symbol of respect on the dead as one of the preparations for Mictlán (the afterlife), while the Mayans wrapped their corpses in shrouds and filled their mouths with food so that they would have enough to eat in the afterlife.
Other common practices for Aztecs and Olmecs were human sacrifices to worship their deities, which occurred in festivities throughout the year. After the Spanish colonization, Mexico experienced catholic practices: and instead masses took place and standard cemeteries were built, however the essence of indigenous rituals were never forgotten.
Eventually, Mexico began consolidating this mix of culture and religion in traditions like the well-known Day of the Dead, celebrated on November the 2nd, where families and institutions create altars to honor and remember their loved ones.
In Mexican cemeteries, there is a colorful and joyful party-like atmosphere created by the families and bands taken to play music for the dead.
However, altars aren’t the only custom that takes place on this day. Another Mexican tradition is writing Calaveritas, which are short poems dedicated to someone who is still living. Calaveritas are written using dark humor and often center on a person who is trying to escape a near death situation, or who is already dead.
Sometimes, these Calaveritas include drawings, such as an image of a skull or Catrina and Catrín, female and male Mexican representations of death.
During Day of the Dead national and local contests are held for the best Calaverita However strange it may seem, the intention behind dedicating a Calaverita to someone isn’t wishing for their death or for something bad to happen to them; on the contrary, it can mean friendship and appreciation, with a touch of dark humor for everyone to enjoy.
Here is an example of a Calaverita by Fernando Escamilla, a Mexican student that dedicated his Calaverita to his friend Maricarmen (English translation below):
A mi amiga Maricarmen que la flaca se llevó por andar en la parranda en la fiesta y el danzón. Tan alegre Maricarmen que a la flaca conquistó con su gracia y alegría con su baile, con su son y por ello no dudó en cargar con sus huesitos y llevarla a un pachangón. Hoy mi amiga Maricarmen muy feliz se va a bailar con su amiga la huesuda que no para de gozar de una chela bien helada cuando dejan de bailar.
To my friend Maricarmen that Death took for hanging out at parties and the danzón. So cheerful was Maricarmen that she conquered Death, with her grace and joy with her dance, her rhythm and therefore she did not hesitate in carrying her bones and taking her to a pachangón (party) Today my friend Maricarmen she goes dancing happily with her friend the bony one that doesn’t stop enjoying a very cold beer once they stop dancing.
The Mexican mindset when facing death is a very different one in contrast to other cultures. Acclaimed Mexican author, Octavio Paz described how North Americans in the US and Canada, evaded any notion or idea that represented death, while Mexicans embraced it. “On the other hand, the Mexican greets her, invites her, deconstructs death: the contemplation of horror and even familiarity and complacency in her treatment are contradictorily one of the most notable features of the Mexican character.” (Paz, 1994).
Throughout Mexican literature, death has also been personified and depicted as a main character, and more than just a passing moment of life. Death can be beautiful, mysterious and poetic. From poet Xavier Villaurrutia to writer Juan Rulfo, the Dead and Dying are centered as the main characters, struggling to cross into the afterlife, and flirting with the idea of dying.
As Mexicans, we’re constantly exposed to death in our daily lives. We know the dangers of going out late at night, of cities ruled by drug cartels and devastating earthquakes. However, as Paz described, we greet death with a smile and a laugh, telling her to come along and have fun with us in a Lotería game, or in a joke told among friends.
In Mexico death remains a common conversation theme, Mexicans have learned to normalize it, even when death was a result of a violent encounter. “Se petateó, estiró la pierna, colgó los tenis”, “he ducked”, “stretched out his leg”, and “hung up his tennis shoes” are all idiomatic expressions that are commonly used to describe death in a carefree and sometimes, funny way.
It’s common to see morbid and graphic news often called “notas rojas,” meaning red note or red news. This is a morbid journalistic genre common in many Latin American countries featuring images of corpses laying on the street, or bags of human decay found in public places. We’ve all seen them and learned to live with them, almost grinning at the creative headings intended to catch our eye.
Other magazines, such as El Chamuco, a leftwing magazine, use death and satire in order to describe the tragic situation our country is experiencing, often criticizing political figures who have been involved in corrupt schemes.
As a way of processing and coping with all the death we see among us, we turn to humor to make the whole experience less painful. Some may say we’re constantly in denial of our reality, but the truth is humor brings us together through the difficult times. Mexican journalist Gabriela Warkentin explains: “Either we carry on laughing or reality burdens us. In order to cope in our beloved Mexico, we need a dose of unconsciousness, cheekiness, a pinch of cynicism and lots of humor”. (Warkentin, 2009).
This satiric style of Mexican humor has also adapted to social media and other digital platforms, where younger generations use memes and TikToks to joke together about death related situations that journalists, activists and most Mexicans struggle with.
Today, the wave of violence in Mexico is at its highest peak and there’s little hope that things will improve in the coming months. Yet, as a resilient nation we’ve found ways to adapt and will continue to carry on using humor to help us survive the surreal and threatening experience that can be living in Mexico.
Angel, A. (2020, February 21st). Suben penas por feminicidios, pero solo 3 de cada 100 asesinatos de mujeres son esclarecidos y llegan a condena. Retrieved from Animal Político.
Expansión Política (2021, July 27). México registró 36,579 homicidios dolosos durante 2020, reporta Inegi. Source.
Born in the state of Guanajuato, Marlene Davila is a communications specialist that has lived in several countries since she was a child. This allowed her to learn about diverse traditions and death rituals. Her articles explore social differences in her country and how violence affects Mexico’s death perspective.
Marlene writes for international death blogs and works in corporate communications at a German enterprise. You can fine Marlene on LinkedIn.
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